Skip to main content

Mountain Heroes: Lisa Henderson

Lisa Henderson: My Mountain Story

Lisa Henderson lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. She was born in a town that went vacant because of pollution from nearby mountaintop removal mining, and was raised under the wing of one country’s most ardent and outspoken advocates of environmental justice, Judy Bonds. An only child, Lisa tagged along with her mother to community meetings, protests, rallies, and public hearings to stop mountaintop removal mining. By her mother’s side, Lisa learned the meaning of courage. She watched her mother, who went from waiting tables to directing the grassroots organization Coal River Mountain Watch, take the microphone and inspire neighbors to stand up for their homes, health, and well-being. Lisa looked on as some community members attacked her mother, both verbally and physically, and leveled threats against her for her activism. Through it all, she saw her mother hold her ground with coal industry executives and relentlessly defend her community’s right to clean water, clean air, and intact mountains. And eventually, she witnessed her mother accept the nation’s highest environmental honor, the Goldman Prize. In January 2011, however, Lisa lost her mother, and Appalachia lost one of its toughest advocates, to lung cancer.

This is Lisa's story:

My name is Lisa Henderson. My mom was Julia "Judy" Bonds. She was well-known for the fight to save her community. Not just the mountains, but her community.

It all started when my mom, my son, our dog, and I went for a walk one evening out on our little dirt lane in Marfork Hollow. The dog and my son were just a few feet ahead of us, and of course they ran straight into the creek ahead. When we caught up with them, we saw for the first time that mountaintop removal mining had reached us.

There stood my son in a creek of black-grey, smelly, murky water, with dead fish missing eyeballs all around him. Our first instinct was to scream, "Get out! Get out!" I was shocked. I had never seen anything like that before. We didn’t even know what it was. At a time like that, there’s just one thought: There’s your child, standing in poison.

We traced the polluted creek to mountaintop removal mining. At that time, the mountaintop removal mining operations were on the opposite side of the mountain. We started talking to community members from the other side of the mountain, and the more we talked to people, the more we heard, "Oh, you just wait. There’s more in store for you." They were right.

My mom immediately started cutting out every mountaintop removal mining permit she could find out of every newspaper she could find, and started calling for community meetings about those permits. But it didn’t matter how many people showed up to stop them. The coal companies still did what they wanted to do. The only choice was to keep pushing back.

Before that time, we had never even heard the term "treehugger." Sometimes when you get involved in something, you don’t even know what you’re doing, except that you’re fighting for survival. To us, that’s what we were doing: fighting for survival. It just snowballed from there.

When the mining really ramped up around us, every time it’d rain the creek near us would flood with poison from the coal sludge dam above us. The creek would run gray and black with sludge, killing all the fish. Coal dust would cover everything. We couldn’t even sit in our lawn furniture, and we’d have to wipe our vehicles off.

We found out that the coal slurry dam up above us was actually the largest one in the southeastern United States. That was pretty scary. Eventually my mom, my son, and I were the only ones left in Marfork Hollow. Our relatives wanted us out of there. They were afraid we’d be washed away. It got unbearable, and we finally left. My son was the first generation in my family that did not get to grow up in Marfork.

Before mountaintop removal mining, living in Marfork was paradise. It was more of a simple life than some people will ever get to know. But the best part was the community. In these small mountain towns, your neighbors are your family.

As my mom spoke out more, a lot of people saw her as a leader. She was a five-foot-tall block of cement. People saw she stood up. It didn’t matter who said she was wrong. It didn’t matter who said she should turn her tail and run. It didn’t matter even when people threatened her. And there were a lot of threats.

You see, around here, a lot of people see coal mining as a tradition, and it is. Some felt that by defending all forms of coal mining, they were fighting for a way of life, but there are people here in the coalfields who are fighting for their very lives.

When you’re with someone every day, you don’t see them quite as the rest of the world sees them, because you see them at their best and at their worst. My mom was just trying to make a place for us to live. She was just fighting for her life, and for our lives. There were times I even said to her, "You know, Mom, it’s dangerous. Maybe we should just pack up and leave the Coal River." But she was not about to give up. It just wasn’t in her.

She comes from a tough line of women. You weren’t going to push her around; you weren’t going to tell her she was wrong when she knew she was right; and you especially weren’t going to trample on somebody smaller than you.

Later on, like so many people who live in the polluted Coal River Valley, my mom got terminal lung cancer. When my mom was sick, there were people who wrote cards and letters. I read them with her every day. They thanked her for her work. They’d say, "You inspire me, you make me want to be a better person." That’s probably one of the best things you can say about a human being. I was in awe.

I absolutely consider my mother a hero, and I want to carry on her work. But the responsibility is not to my mother as much as it is to our community. I am a part of this community, and this community is a part of me, no matter what.

I have a granddaughter now, and I hope she will be like my mom, of course. I hope we can end mountaintop removal mining for her. And I hope she’ll get to have a dog and ride a bicycle and build a little dam in a clear mountain stream. That’s what I hope for her.